The Return of Team Alps

In February and early March, all Swiss schools have a week-long vacation that is known as “Sport Week.” It gives Swiss families a chance to enjoy the beautiful mountains that are the country’s pride and joy. And being in the mountains in the winter automatically means “sport” – mostly downhill skiing, but also sledding, snowshoeing, etc. This is not intended to be a relaxing vacation, but a week of winter sports.

As other parents know, a family vacation with young children is never relaxing anyway. In fact it is a lot of work to get the whole family transported somewhere, and then find things to do all together that everyone enjoys – which is nearly impossible. When you combine these two things to make a family Sport Week vacation, it turns out to be really exhausting!

Add to that the fact that our apartment is on the side of the mountain (really the only place it can be when you are in the Alps), so we have to hike up and down a zigzagging sidewalk and road whenever we walk out the door. Plus we arrived just as the grocery store closed on Saturday, and of course nothing is open on Sundays, and there are not many convenient restaurants around here. This made things particularly challenging for the first couple of days.

Oh, and on Sunday, it was foggy and raining/snowing all day, so we couldn’t see anything. Plus, I am still recovering from my knee injury that happened last week. All of this put together was a recipe for disaster. While we were supposed to be having a nice vacation and doing some family bonding, we were mostly just doing a lot of whining and yelling.

Now, I generally try to not to complain or be negative on our blog, but I want you to know the reality of the situation. It was a rough couple of days. I wondered if this whole vacation was a good idea in the first place. However, it is good that we have a whole week here. Although the weekend was not so good, there is still room for a happy ending.

Things started to turn around on Monday afternoon. The weather had cleared, and we decided to go sledding at a hill in town. Getting there was awful. Henry was cranky from having his nap interrupted, we had to hike down the road to rent an extra sled, we got off at the wrong stop from the ski bus, so we had to hike some more to get to the gondola that took us up the hill. By the time we finally reached the top, it was so late that we knew we would miss the last ski bus and were facing a very long and steep climb back to our apartment. Tempers were flaring and emotions were running high, to say the least.

There was no choice but to start our journey back, so we crammed everyone onto the two sleds and started down the hill. Given my knee injury and our poor track record for steep sledding, we opted for the longer, slower slope. We sledded and walked a beautiful trail above the town. But, we didn’t really know where we were going, and after a while it became clear that we were lost. We were not going back toward the gondola station or even the main bus stop in town. Just as the situation was getting really desperate, we looked down and saw what looked like our holiday village. “Is that our apartment?” Joe asked. Indeed it was. There was much celebrating as we hiked down the trail back home. We ended up getting back in plenty of time to enjoy a nice family dinner made from the groceries we had gotten that day. I’m not sure exactly what it was, but something had shifted.

Tuesday was our best day yet. We went to the “Top of Toggenburg,” riding a bus, a funicular, and a cable car to get to the top of a mountain with a spectacular panorama view. We were surrounded by downhill skiers, but there is also an amazing hiking trail on the plateau of the mountain that we had almost completely to ourselves. We sledded, hiked and played in the snow with (almost) no complaining. We caught all the right buses to get home smoothly. Then we watched one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. It was a great day.

Team Alps is back!

Posted from Wildhaus, St. Gallen, Switzerland.

Fasnacht Friday

It is Fasnacht season. What is Fasnacht? It’s a traditional festival that takes place before Lent, and is celebrated primarily in Switzerland, Southern Germany and a few other areas. I always thought it was like Mardi Gras, but in Switzerland, Fasnacht season starts as early as mid-January and goes through mid-March. Nearly every town in Switzerland has a Fasnacht celebration on one of the weekends. The biggest and most well-known Fasnacht  festivals are in Basel and Luzern.

We wanted to experience this phenomenon. So on Friday after school, Sarah and the kids got in the Fasnacht spirit. James sported a mohawk, the girls wore some facial jewels and crepe paper, and Henry had a homemade Fasnacht hat. We drew a lot of looks as we made our way through Münsingen to the train station, and I was a little worried we overdid it. Boy was I wrong!

Once we got to Bern, there were plenty of colorfully costumed people mixed in with the normal business people at the train station. We picked out a costumed family, and decided to follow them. We made it to the parade, which consisted of very strikingly dressed marching bands. There had to be a lot of space between the bands so you could differentiate the music, and in between bands, crowds of costumed people walked right along so that the line between the parade and the spectators was completely blurred. So, after a handful of bands had passed, we decided to follow the crowd and paraded the streets of Bern. We ended up at the Munsterplatz or Cathedral Square, which was packed with people. We had a lot of fun.

I remember being a little disappointed back in October when Halloween passed without much fanfare. But now I understand why. Who needs Halloween when you’ve got Fasnacht?!

Check out our Fasnacht pictures here.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Best. Birthday. Ever. (Almost)

Over the weekend, our former host-daughter Isabel came from Basel and offered to stay with the kids so Joe and I could get away for a night. It also happened to be Joe’s 35th birthday weekend, so I said he could choose where we should go. On a recommendation from a colleague, he selected a secluded mountain hotel called the Hotel Weisshorn. The hotel is not accessible by car and is a 90 minute hike from the nearest town. It sounded like a fun adventure.

Starting our hike to the hotel - you can see it in the distanceSaturday was a perfect day in every way. The weather was beautiful. It was the first time Joe and I had been out alone in a really long time. We relaxed immediately into our journey, riding trains to the town of Sierre at the mouth of the Val d’Anniviers (Anniversary Valley). Then, a bus along a scary, winding mountain road to the village of St. Luc. From there we could see the hotel in the distance. We rode a funicular up a little further, but the rest of the hike to the hotel must be done on foot.

It was sunny and warm enough that we took off our jackets for much of the journey. We were surrounded by stunning mountain scenery. We talked and laughed the whole way. It was really beyond words. The pictures we took give a glimpse of the paradise we were in.

It was the perfect choice for our get away because there is no way we could have brought our children to this place. As we walked we were struck by the silence – there was no whining or complaining!

Sunset at the Weisshorn HotelWhen we got to the hotel, we discovered a building that is mostly unchanged since the 1800’s. It was historic and quaint. We rested up a bit, had a drink with other groups of hikers and skiers in the lounge, and then watched the sunset behind the mountains across the valley. What a day!

The next day started off just as good. A few clouds had rolled in, but it was still beautiful. After breakfast, we got ready to make our way back down the mountain. We had brought our sled for this part of the journey, figuring we could glide down the meandering mountain path. But, from the hotel, there is a fairly steep section initially before it flattens out. It seemed like fun, so we got on the sled with me in front to steer and Joe behind. As we raced down the mountain, snow was flying in our faces so we could barely see where we were going. Suddenly, we hit a dip and the sled stopped, but we kept going. We flew through the air and landed with a thud, Joe bounced on top of my leg before rolling down the hill, and that’s when I felt the “pop.”

My brain immediately went into overdrive. “Oh God!” I thought, “I broke my leg, and now I’m going to be stranded on this mountain!” But fortunately, Joe remained calm, and after a quick diagnostic test, we figured out that I could stand and even walk, sort of. There were no broken bones, so we pressed on. We now know that my MCL (medial collateral ligament) was torn. Surprisingly, an MCL tear of this nature is not terribly painful. It just causes your knee to be unstable, making it difficult to walk. The pain comes in when your knee buckles in ways its not supposed to. So, for most of the rest of the journey, Joe pulled me while I sat on the sled with my legs straight. It was still beautiful. For most of the journey, we didn’t see any other people on the mountain, and occasionally Joe could sit in front and we would glide down long slow paths, just as we had planned – almost.

Kicking our feet up at the end of the hikeToward the end, we had to hike a narrow, downhill trail, so I used the sled as a walker. Then I slid on my butt down an icy road into St. Luc. I limped on and off buses and trains all the way home. It was certainly an adventure, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat (except maybe the steep sledding part!). And though Joe’s actual birthday was on Sunday during our calamitous trip home, we decided that this year, his birthday was a day early.

Check out some of our best pictures here.

Posted from Münsingen, Bern, Switzerland.

Halfway there…

So as of February 1, 2012, we have been living in Switzerland for six months, which means we have six more months to go. Recently I have begun thinking about how my life has changed since living here. Some things are obvious: I speak more German here, I don’t have a car, I can only afford meat when it’s on sale. But other things take a little introspection to figure out. Life is certainly not the same as it was. So here are just a few of the ways things have changed for me in the last six months.

1. I’ve started smoking

Actually, I’ve started second-hand smoking. It’s much cheaper. But it’s also nearly unavoidable since almost everyone seems to smoke around here when waiting for the bus or a train. Even at 6am. Who wants a cigarette at 6am? Apparently the Swiss do. I figure I’m second-hand smoking up to a pack and a half per day now. While the smell of smoke used to bother me in the morning, now I barely even notice it. I also can’t taste food anymore. It might be unrelated… but I expect not.

2. I know the cows who produce my milk, personally

If you read the blog regularly, you know that Sarah and I get our milk, eggs, and potatoes from a farm down the street. We go in a few times a week and fill up our milk bottles, drop a deposit in the till and head home. The sad part is, I can tell what the cows have been eating all week by how the milk tastes. You know that scene in Napolean Dynamite where he is in the milk-tasting competition? That’s now me.

An actual (translated) conversation from a few weeks ago between me and the farmer:

Me: Hello! How’s it going?

Farmer: Super! How’s working at the hospital?

Me: It’s good. Hey, how’s Katya’s (the cow) mastitis doing?

Farmer: Much better. The antibiotics helped. Her udder is much less swollen and red.

Me: Super. Have a great weekend!

Farmer: Same to you!

3. I’ve come to regard Personal Space as a suggestion

The American vs. European cliché about personal space is alive and well in Switzerland. People don’t mind being bumped into, touched, cramped, crowded, or squished into elevators, buses, trains, or the like. At first this definitely made me feel uncomfortable. Then I got used to it, but would still think about it as it was happening. After a while it stopped bothering me altogether. In fact, I’ve started pushing the boundaries the other way; seeing how close I can stand next to someone while talking to them, standing absurdly close to someone in a wide open elevator, sitting on other people’s laps during lunch. I’m waiting for someone to suggest that I’ve gone too far. This may take a while.

 4. I wait at crosswalk lights

Living in Chicago for seven years, you can make a game about how to most creatively cross the street. Things like crosswalks, lighted signals… these are suggestions. In Switzerland, if you cross the street anywhere other than the crosswalk, or when the walk light isn’t green, you will draw looks. More than likely you will draw comments. Das ist verboten! At first you may be tempted to brush this off, but then you realize… every adult Swiss male has done at least some military service, and has a fully functional semi-automatic weapon readily available. Maybe its best to just do what they say. Eat some chocolate, pay attention, and just follow the rules. Welcome to Switzerland.

Posted from Münsingen, Bern, Switzerland.

Henry Benry

Henry turned two the month before we left for Europe. We have always wondered whether he will remember any of this experience. While the rest of us are immersing ourselves in the language, having cultural experiences, and learning new things, Henry is pretty much oblivious. He has been to Oktoberfest in Munich, skied in the Swiss Alps, and so much more! And yet, here is a conversation I had with him the other day:

Henry loves Legoland“Henry, where do we live?”

“America!”

“Well… where do we live right now?”

“Um, Minnesota?”

“No.”

“At home.”

“Yes, but where is our home?”

(Blank stare)

“Is it in Switzerland?”

“Oh yeah! Switzerland!”

Hmmmm. So, not only will Henry not remember his year in Switzerland, he doesn’t even really understand it as it is happening. However, he has had a big year in his own two-year-old sort of way. He went from a pretty limited vocabulary, to speaking in complete sentences, repeating and incorporating everything he has heard and making us all laugh. “Hey dad, you wanna hear something? It’s super cool and funny!”

This week, Henry finally got out of his pack-n-play that he has been sleeping in for the past 6 months. We figured it was time since he could no longer lay down in it without his head being wedged in the corner. Not that he was complaining. He usually slept all curled up like a snail with his butt up in the air. But, he immediately took to his “big boy bed,” and when we checked on him the first night, he was sprawled out on his back with his legs stretched out and his arms above his head. I was so happy for him!

The second morning in his new bed I went in to get him up, but his bed was empty. The covers were bunched up on the floor, so I lifted them up expecting to see him there. But he wasn’t. I listened, and I could hear breathing. So I bent down and looked under the bed, and there he was, sleeping peacefully. And this was at 8:30am. I don’t know what we did to deserve this, but he is an awesome sleeper!

This morning was Henry’s second time at Spielgruppe. It translates as “play group,” but it is a sort of short-term, in-house day care for 2 – 4 year olds. Henry gets to go to Ursula’s apartment for 2 hours every Friday morning. Last week didn’t go so well. Of course, all the other children speak Swiss German. The teacher speaks a few words of English for Henry. But, all of a sudden he was completely on his own in unfamiliar surroundings and couldn’t understand what people were saying. I imagine he felt a lot like the rest of us felt 6 months ago, and the way a two-year-old deals with that feeling is by crying for his mommy.

But, with a little help, he did really well this week. When I picked him up at the end of Spielgruppe, he said, “Mommy, I didn’t cry!” And who knows, at his age he might still be able to absorb some of the language from this exposure. He is a fast learner.

In fact, since our earlier conversation, he now likes to ask, “Hey dad, where do we live?” That is our cue to say, “I don’t know, Henry. Where do we live?” He gets a big smile on his face and says, “Switzerland!”

There is just one more big project for Henry this year: potty training.

We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

 

Posted from Münsingen, Bern, Switzerland.

Cha-Ching

I’ve noticed another sign of my integration into Swiss culture. I call it “money math.” To explain what I mean, first you have to understand the smallest denominations of Swiss currency. Joe covered Swiss Franc bills in a previous series, but he stopped before he got to the most common form of money that we deal with every day — the coins.

Swiss Coins

In Switzerland, the smallest paper currency is 10 Francs. So, the coins, from largest to smallest are: 5 Francs, 2 Francs, 1 Franc, 50 cents, 20 cents, 10 cents, and 5 cents. (“Cents” are actually called “Rappen” here, but I don’t want to confuse the issue.) This is so completely different than the breakdown of coins in the US. For starters, you will notice there is no penny. The 1-cent coin was taken out of circulation in 2006. (There was also a 2-cent coin that was taken out of circulation in 1974.) You can still come across these coins occasionally. They are actually considered to be good luck. But, officially, there is nothing smaller than 5-cents, so all prices end in 5s or usually 10s. There are no prices ending in $.99. Imagine that!

Secondly, the value of coins is so much greater. A 5 Franc coin is worth $5.44 today. A small collection of coins in my purse could easily be worth over $20. Which leads me back to money math. When you grow up counting quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies, it is really hard to switch gears. For example, if something costs 22.75 in the US, that would be a $20 bill, two $1 bills, and 3 quarters. In Switzerland, it’s a 20 CHF bill, a 2 CHF coin, a 50-cent coin, a 20-cent coin, and a 5-cent coin.

When we first got here, my brain just couldn’t do the math fast enough at the checkout counter, especially since I wasn’t familiar enough with the coins to know what each one was worth without flipping them around to look at the numbers. Plus, I was trying to just understand what the clerk was asking me in Swiss German. (Her: “Do you have a store savings card?” Me: “What?” Her: “Would you like your frozen items in a plastic bag?” Me: “What?” Her: “That will be 87.90 please.”) At this point, I would just look at the display screen to decipher the number she had just said, hand her whatever bill I had that was bigger, accept whatever change she gave me and get out of there as quickly as I could. This resulted in an extremely large collection of coins in my purse, until finally I decided I had to start using them.

It was a long and slow process. But the other day I realized that I hardly ever say “What?” at checkout counters anymore, and I can count out my change like a pro. In fact, it was harder for me to think about the US breakdown in my earlier example than the Swiss breakdown! I’ve grown to really like the larger coins here. In fact, when we come back to the US, I think I might do my part to help the US economy by using all those $1 coins that the US made that are sitting in storage because no one wants to use them. But, that’s a different issue.

Posted from Münsingen, Bern, Switzerland.

Welcome to Rainy, Snowy, Foggy Switzerland

We’ve been busy with our first visitors from America since September! We loved playing tour guides and showing them many of our favorite spots. Unfortunately, we couldn’t control the weather. I’ll give you the quick run down, and let them tell you about the experience in their own words in a later post.

Day 1: Some good friends, Kelly and Mark, arrived last Thursday for a Swiss vacation. When they arrived, our cute Swiss town was rainy and dreary. But, it was decided that we couldn’t let the weather stop us, so we grabbed all the umbrellas in the house and walked over to the farm to get some fresh milk and potatoes and introduce them to our animal friends. Back at home, we hung out our wet clothes, started a fire and checked the weather forecast. It did not look good.

Day 2: We awoke to more rain. The kids had school, including an ice skating field trip for Emily and a morning in the woods for James. The rest of us took a wet hike across the Aare river and up the ridge to look over our valley. In the afternoon, our guests tagged along on a trip to the grocery store and other errands to see what it was like. We all went out to dinner at the oldest restaurant in Switzerland, and them walked all the way home in the drizzle because, inexplicably, the buses stop running at 6:30pm on Saturdays.

Day 3: More rain. This is getting ridiculous. But, even though it wasn’t a clear day, we all went to the mountains anyway. We took the train to the mountain town of Kandersteg (where we spent Christmas), and rode the cable car up to Sunnbüel. It is a beautiful area with hiking, cross country skiing, and some downhill skiing. It is surrounded by mountains, but it was snowing the whole time so we couldn’t see much.  I’ve been there twice now, and I still haven’t seen the mountains in the beautiful valley to the south. We brought two sleds and a picnic lunch and had a great time playing in the snow.

Favorite memory: Flying down a ski hill on sleds, even though it was way to steep for sledding. We all crashed and ended up with snow in places it doesn’t belong, but we laughed all the way — and all night when we saw the pictures!

Day 4: Cloudy and foggy. As Henry says, “Are you kidding me!?” We couldn’t wait for the weather any longer, so we took them to Lenk for their first day of skiing. There were some complicated logistics, great snow, and a few stunning moments when the fog blew off momentarily. But generally, you couldn’t see more that about 25 feet in any direction. It was very discombobulating. We caught up with our friend Lorenz, who was also there for the weekend, and he invited us all back to his house for tea, a panettone (popular pastry, like a giant muffin that originates from Italy), and a schwitz in the sauna.

Favorite memory: Watching my kids run out of the sauna and into the snow completely naked with nothing on except mittens on their feet. They loved it!

Day 5: Cloudy and foggy again. Kelly and Mark took off early for their own Swiss adventure. They made it to the Jungfraujoch – the highest point in Europe, where they were finally above the weather and were able to see mountain peaks all around. They also skied at Grindelwald, a popular Swiss ski area just below the Jungfrau, until the fog rolled in again and they called it a day.

Day 6: Kelly (a surgical assistant) joined Joe at the hospital in the morning, while I showed Mark (an architect) some of the architectural highlights of Münsingen. They all met up in Bern for lunch and a private tour of the old town with Joe as their guide.

It was so nice for us to have friends visit from America! We were able to connect in a different way than we have been able to for 6 months. We loved having an excuse to go back to some of our favorite places to show them off. We had a lot of fun, and we think they did too!

(We also took some great pictures!)

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.